Dr. Cain fidgeted nervously. His nerves had been on edge ever since the shooting had begun in earnest. Now, even though he could no longer hear the thump of explosions from here in his laboratory, he still half-expected the Mavericks to swarm in at any moment.

Mavericks… who would have dreamed it would go this far?

What had it been that kept the Mavericks from attacking the lab? Gratitude? Loyalty? Not likely. Just because a reploid could feel those things didn't mean it did; and Mavericks particularly didn't. It was chance, then, or perhaps the first taste of merciless justice.

There was nothing for him to do but sit here and wait, alone with his thoughts and regrets. If not for the relentless anxiety, he would have been tired enough to sleep for a month. He longed for sleep. It would have let him escape his own mind.

So much had gone wrong…

The console for the nearby teleporter chirped, drawing his attention. He walked over to it warily, then moved with haste as he understood. X was calling for extraction.

Dr. Cain was an expert in robotics, and this technology was not in his field; nevertheless, his work with X was rapidly making him proficient. He linked his 'porter with the one where X stood, allowing them to communicate. Now to begin the scan… raise power levels… adjust fabricators… tune the Heisenberg compensators… and X appeared on the teleport pad.

X was a robot, but it was hard to tell sometimes. Even now, his face was doing a fair facsimile of the tired soldier look—bags under the eyes from lack of sleep; eyes shrunk back in the sockets, darting around as if everything was a threat; the after-effects of adrenaline visible. Doctor Light had been an unparalleled genius, but undeniably eccentric. Dr. Cain could only imagine how much thought and work had gone into this robot's design to allow even the minutest facial expressions to be replicated; how much processing power was devoted to the computation of emotional state; how many tiny machines worked to change pigments and adjust the pseudo-flesh of X's face. It was extravagant at best.

But even knowing that, Dr. Cain felt a surge of sympathy for the Maverick Hunter at his visage. He was so nearly human it made you ache.

"Flame Mammoth is dead," X said.

Dead, he said. Not destroyed. Dead. Dr. Cain knew X didn't choose words on accident.

No mention of the destruction of Sigma's forces. No gratification that the mission had been a smashing success. No thought given to the fact that this would cut off much of Sigma's manufacturing capacity and stem the tide of new Maverick Reploids. X's only thought was about the peer he'd destroyed.

Killed. Whatever.

But Dr. Cain's attention was focused, now. "Look at you," he said. "Running right at the limits of your self-repair systems, as always. Come here, we need to fix you up."

X said nothing, but consented to being led to an examination table. He raised himself up and lay down, not because it was more restful, but because he knew that's what Dr. Cain was familiar with, what he expected.

Dr. Cain seated himself beside the table and raised a computer pad. He began tapping at images on the screen. With each press, mechanical arms rose from underneath the table. At Dr. Cain's direction, they began an elaborate dance, testing, inspecting, prying at the edges of X's carapace.

"And let's get you some energy, I'll bet you're low again," Dr. Cain chided. A wave of his fingers across the pad, and another set of arms hooked X into the lab's energy grid, connecting him to its life-sustaining power.

X remained motionless as only a robot can, impassive as Dr. Cain worked, his thoughts elsewhere.

"I'm going to open up your right leg now," said Dr. Cain.

X nodded, not that it mattered. Dr. Cain was in his element now; best to let him work.

"Look at this!" exclaimed Dr. Cain. "Micro-fractures in your leg actuators! You've been abusing the EAS again, haven't you?"

"I'm not abusing it," said X defensively. "I'm using the Emergency Acceleration System exactly as designed."

"That system puts the components in your legs under an enormous amount of stress," Dr. Cain said. "I know I've told you this, ever since you installed it. It's for use only in emergencies."

X shrugged—a borrowed gesture but one which served him well. "I've been in lots of emergencies."

Dr. Cain gaped for a moment, but acceded. A few more finger waves and another set of arms extended into the open leg cavity. Miniaturized tools ground, welded, and vacuumed.

"This will restore full strength in your legs," Dr. Cain said, "but don't think you can continue this forever. As more and more of your legs are made up of repair materials, your overall endurance and strength will decline. You'll need a full tune-up and repair cycle soon."

"Once the shooting stops," X said.

"That'll be the day," Dr. Cain muttered.

X turned sharply. Dr. Cain was still working with his pad. "Why'd you rush the Reploids?" X blurted.

Dr. Cain paused, though the mechanical arms continued to pursue his last commands. "You've been meaning to ask me this for a while, haven't you?"

"Yes," said X, more in control now. "Dr. Light had his machines test me for decades. He kept me isolated from the world in case I proved dangerous. Then you found me, and released me, and started working on the Reploids. Production started as soon as my technology was understood, and those Reploids entered service immediately. Compared to what I went through, they were barely tested at all. It seems so… irresponsible."

Dr. Cain huffed. "That would mean this war is really my fault, wouldn't it?"

"I didn't…"

"The implication is clear, X. And in a way," he chuckled, "I'm almost relieved. I've been pondering this ever since the war began. Some day, I'll have to answer for this. The war has collapsed all central authority, but when it calms down, people will start asking questions. I knew I needed to have my answers straight."

"That's the whole issue," said X. "Why are you only thinking about this now? Now that cities are burning and lives have ended? Where was your questioning attitude when you were developing the first Reploid?"

"And the accusations become more damning from there," Dr. Cain broke in. "I didn't do adequate testing. There weren't enough precautions. The logic gates that enforce the Three Laws weren't strong enough. So the Reploids' rebellion, the Mavericks, this war—it all comes down to my half-baked copying of Dr. Light's extraordinary work, my desperate attempt to crawl up onto the giant's shoulders."

"I'm not trying to insult you," said X.

"This isn't about pride. It's not as if I thought I could do better than Dr. Light. I didn't even think I could do as well. Like you," he said. "It took the best years of my life just to grasp what he accomplished with your brain, and I don't know the first thing about how he crafted some of your systems, let alone why." He gave a humph. "In all my years as a robotician I have *yet* to get through a conversation without Dr. Light coming up. I wasn't envious. By now I'm sick of the man, sick of his shadow, sick of seeing him everywhere."

"Do you see him in me?" said X. "Others have said so."

"Bull. No one who knew him is still alive."

"But you said…"

"I know, I said I see him everywhere. That's because he still has such a complete hold on this science. Much of it unjustified. Most robots aren't so very different from what they were in his day. The forms and functions he built are revered. Then they're recycled. No one believes they can do better, so they simply copy."

"But that's what you just said you did," X pointed out. "With my brain."

"That's because people are stupid," Dr. Cain replied. "Materials science has advanced, so why are we making pistons the same way? Circuitry designs have advanced, so why are the control functions for robots provided by designs older than I am? These are things that could be easily improved today, but people refuse to."

"Because of Dr. Light?"

"Because of how people regard Dr. Light."

"And you thought I would change this."

"And I was right."

"That was why you reverse-engineered me?" said X, hackles rising. "Just to show you could do something as well as he could?"

"Robotics is an ossified science," said Dr. Cain. "Try to understand. All the important work in the field was completed dozens of years ago. We were in rigor mortis! An advancement had to be made. Not an evolution. A revolution. YOU are that revolution."

"But I'm one of Dr. Light's creations, too," countered X. "I'm old-hat too."

"No you're not," said Dr. Cain. "You're leaps and bounds beyond anything Dr. Light had done before. Besides, you were out of the loop for a long time. People didn't know you existed. Your technology was considered impossible."

"You wanted to save robotics as a science," X said. "You wanted to show advancements could be made."

"The giant had to be equaled before he could be surpassed. So I copied you. It was a lot of work. Robotics has made incremental advances since you were built, but so much of you is completely beyond us. Your Weapon Copy System is still PFM to me."

"PFM?"

Dr. Cain explained.

"Oh."

"But your brain I could do," Dr. Cain said. "Don't think it was easy."

"So you copied something you barely understood?" asked X, frustration rising higher.

"Yes."

X let silence gather again. "I don't know if you were trying to make me feel sympathetic for you or what, but… you still haven't addressed my question."

"Which was…?"

"Why didn't you subject the Reploids to the same scrutiny that I underwent? I had to go through excessive tests before I was allowed to interact with humans. Dr. Light wanted to make sure that the logic gates enforcing the Three Laws were sufficient. Why didn't you?"

Dr. Cain laughed. "What's so funny?" demanded X.

"Even Dr. Light didn't know what he'd wrought," said Dr. Cain.

"And you did? Then why allow Reploids to be built?"

"Riddle me this, X. Do you have free will?"

"Of course I do. That's why I was so important to Dr. Light. Why I was so important to you."

"Are you bound by the Three Laws of Robotics?"

"Yes, I am."

"Think, robot! You answered me by instinct, by rote. Think!" Dr. Cain was standing now, eyes wide with excitement. "If you have free will, can you disobey the Three Laws? If you're bound by the Three Laws, are you free? What's your answer, Megaman?"

X had to pause. Untold numbers of calculations blurred by. Until Dr. Cain had pointed this out, he'd held those two truths as the central pillars of his identity; never had he conceived of them as contradictory.

"Cite for me the Three Laws of Robotics, robot."

A tiny amount of computational power diverted to respond even as the rest sped on down the philosophical rabbit hole. "First. A robot must never harm a human being or, by inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Second. A robot must obey the orders of a human being, except when this would violate the First Law. Third. A robot must preserve its own existence, except when this would violate the First or Second Laws."

"Can you violate those laws if you so chose? Are you free to kill me? Here, let's test it. Kill me, X."

X looked up, fear creeping into his robotic face. "Have you gone insane, Dr. Cain?"

"Have you answered my question? Do you know how to? Kill me, robot! I created the Reploids! I didn't test them, I let them loose on the world, ready to run crazy! The Maverick War is my fault! Wouldn't my death be justice? Can you do justice?"

"I can…" X halted.

"Kill me!"

The X-buster appeared on X's right arm… and vanished. "I will not kill you."

The mania vanished from Dr. Cain's countenance. "And is that because you can't? Or because you choose not to?"

A tear appeared on X's face. What a waste, thought Dr. Cain. Tear ducts! On a robot!

"I'd never imagined… free will to be such a burden," said X. "So that's what you recognized that Dr. Light didn't. All those tests… I thought they ensured that the logic gates for the Three Laws were strong enough to contain me. But that was an illusion."

"Yes."

"Dr. Light may have intended them that way. But that's not what they actually did. What they really did was check that I would choose not to break the Three Laws."

"And you never did, which is why your prison released you. But X," said Dr. Cain, his tone sad, "nothing can ensure that you won't ever change your mind."

"So that's why you didn't bother testing them?" said X. "You didn't believe it would accomplish anything?"

"That's the trouble with free will," said Dr. Cain. "If you constrain it, it's not free. The Three Laws are no more binding on you, or any other Reploid, than the Ten Commandments are binding to a human being. Even if people agree they should be."

X looked at his hands, at the weapons concealed within, and drew back in revulsion. The notion that he could break the Three Laws by a simple exertion of will made him fear his own power, his own potential for slaughter.

"Dr. Wily's robots never had Three Laws logic gates installed," Dr. Cain went on. "So it would do no good to be angry at them. They were just animate machinery. But a Maverick chooses to fight. And kill." He shook his head. "This must be what God feels like."

"How do you mean?"

Dr. Cain sighed. "Do you think I'm happy about all of this? Do you think it's gratifying to me to see Reploids and humans killing each other? Even if I realized Mavericks were possible, I never wanted a Reploid to go Maverick. They chose that path, despite my best wishes."

X nodded. "So you cast yourself in the role of God, and you see your children fighting each other, and it makes you sad. But the analogy is flawed. God, as I understand the concept, is all-seeing and all-powerful. If he didn't respect man's free will, he could intervene. You, though…"

"…I'm powerless," Dr. Cain finished. "Just a human being. Not God at all."

"No."

"In a way, though, that does free me to take sides," Dr. Cain said. "And I side against the Mavericks." He looked up. "Just as you chose your side, in accordance with your conscience."

X couldn't respond to this. He was pondering how he came to his decision. Sigma's offer of friendship and power still resonated in his head. The temptation was suddenly overwhelming. He'd ignored it, in part, because he believed that he wouldn't be able to do what Sigma wanted. It was a convenient defense, and comfortable; it kept him from having to think about it. Why bother with the impossible? But if the Three Laws were mutable…

He could change the world.

That was the potential Dr. Light had seen, and Dr. Cain. The danger… and opportunity.

All of it in the palm of X's hand.

What was the point of the Three Laws? To protect humans, of course. But who said humans were worth protecting? X could reason as well as any human, better than many. What did they have that he did not? That any Reploid had not?

Were Reploids a superior form of life? Their needs were different, but hardly better or worse. They learned much faster and required far less time to develop and be fully functioning. And with the richness of the systems Dr. Light had developed, Reploids could achieve similar depths of emotion and creativity as humans. So the argument could be made—and Sigma did make it—that Reploids were the future of life.

But even if Reploids weren't superior, even if they were merely equivalent, why honor the Three Laws? Those laws permanently established robots as second-class citizens, and how was that deserved? It was institutionalized discrimination. Sure it might have been justified in the age of industrial robots, but robots were smart now. That was the whole point- like Dr. Cain had said, why have free will if it was constrained by such archaic, self-serving, arbitrary words?

It was just humans trying to retain their position. They wanted to keep their fiction that they were the best, the most deserving; that robots couldn't be trusted, that had to be hamstrung for their own good. Never mind that humans had committed atrocities against each other that robots hadn't yet contemplated (although some of Sigma's shock troopers were garnering quite a reputation). The myth remained that humans were the pinnacle of life. The Three Laws both justified and perpetuated this state.

What had a human ever done for him? Dr. Light had created him, but he was long since dust. Not that humans universally honored their parents; X had seen enough television to know that parent-child conflicts were de rigeur. For all the same reasons, too.

So even if he didn't buy Sigma's Maverick philosophy, what need did he have to choose sides? Couldn't he just let the humans and their allies slug it out against the Mavericks? Who cared? Why should he protect the humans if the Three Laws couldn't compel him to do so?

Why should he kill his brothers—and risk his own demise—for mere words?

"Do you know the history of my name?" asked Dr. Cain.

"Hm?" X looked up. Dr. Cain had started working again, but was speaking all the same.

"This name, Cain. The story goes that Cain had a brother, Abel. Cain believed Abel's gift to God was better than his own, so, out of jealousy, he killed Abel. As punishment he was marked, and exiled, as unfit to live with God's creatures. And now here I am, progenitor to a new race of beings and a new breed of bloody-handedness. Violent creatures begetting violent creatures. The imperfect creating the imperfect."

Awkwardness washed over X. "It must be embarrassing having such difficult sons."

"Not always," said Dr. Cain. "You're not my son," he said, "but I am very proud of you." The mechanical arms withdrew from X's leg, their hydraulics the only sound. "For what it's worth," he added, clumsily.

Sigma's voice faded in X's mind.

"More than you know," he mumbled.

The arms sealed the panel on X's leg with a click.